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Coffee As Health Food?

Your daily cappuccino may seem like a guilty pleasure. But guess what? This guilty pleasure may actually help you live longer. That's right: Coffee, apparently, is a health food.

I know, you're probably thinking: Yeah, right. It seems like everything that's addictive--and pleasurable--is bad for you. Smoking: bad. Drinking: Bad, if you overdo it. Coffee? Good? What gives?

Well, previous studies have produced decidedly mixed results about coffee. Some found that java seemed to make people more likely to drop dead from a heart attack, get diabetes or be stricken by cancer. Others found the opposite -- coffee drinkers seemed to live longer.

To try to sort out the risk/benefit ratio for America's favorite morning brew, Esther Lopez-Garcia of the Autonoma University in Madrid and her colleagues analyzed detailed data collected at Harvard about 84,21 women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study for 24 years and 41,736 men who participated in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study for 18 years.

After accounting for smoking, diet and other factors that might confuse the analysis --the largest such study to date--found that those who drank more coffee were less likely to die than those who didn't regularly drink java, according to a report in the June 17 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. The reduced risk ranged from 7 percent for women who drank five to seven cups a week to 26 percent who drank four or five cups a day. Although a similar calculation didn't quite meet statistical significance for men, Lopez-Garcia says the trends were going in the same direction, indicating the findings would hold true for them as well with additional follow-up.

Coffee seemed to have no impact on cancer one way or the other. But it did have a big effect on heart disease -- the leading killer for both men and women. Two or three cups a day cut the chances of dying from heart disease by 25 percent. Four or five cups a day cut it by 34 percent.

And it didn't matter whether the coffee was caffeinated or de-caf, indicating there's something else about coffee that's doing the trick. Previous research indicates there are substances in coffee that lower inflammation and make blood vessels work better. The study didn't differentiate filtered or unfiltered brews.

So, next time you're in line at the coffee bar, you'll have to think about something else to feel guilty about. Maybe it's the tab for that venti skim latte. Or maybe it's the calories from that grande white chocolate mocha frappaccino with whip cream (410!).

By Rob Stein  |  June 19, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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